Like many of the books in my extensive collection, I’ve owned an unread copy of Under the Dome for years. It wasn’t until I began sorting through my books in preparation for a cross-country move that I decided it time to dive in and read that massive tome so that I could sell it. I was, of course, also hoping to finish reading before the premiere of the CBS adaptation. I wasn’t successful in either goal, however; the book came with me to California, and the series was 3-4 episodes in before I finished reading.
I’ve also been on a bit of a throwback kick recently. I read a lot of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard in high school, and I’ve been reading a lot of both lately. I’ve mostly been reading Leonard’s older stuff, but with King I’ve been focusing on his most recent work. Doing so has caused me to come to the conclusion that King has been doing some of his best work since finishing the Dark Tower series. Joyland is brisk and entertaining, 11/22/63 is easily one of King’s masterpieces, and Under the Dome is a solid small-town epic.
Under the Dome opens with few glimpses of events around town as people are trapped, injured or killed when a mysterious invisible dome comes down from the sky and surrounds the town. King sets up heroes, villains, murderers and a mystery in short order, then gets down to the business of watching a small town viciously turn on itself. In a lot of ways, Under the Dome reads a bit like a fictionalized sociology experiment. The speculative elements are kept to a minimum, and King seems more interested in human behavior under pressure – good, evil and in-between. It’s a concern that has always threaded through his work, but here he brings it to the forefront.
I will admit that Under the Dome didn’t grab me quite as much as 11/22/63, but I think part of that is the difference in focus. 11/22/63 is personal and romantic, focused on one man’s experiences, whereas Under the Dome has a huge cast of characters and a wide-ranging focus. The characters in Under the Dome are alternately likable or heinous, but none of them has the depth given the main character in 11/22/63. In some ways, Under the Dome reminded me a bit of Tommyknockers, with its shifting viewpoints and portrait of a small town falling apart at the seams. However, where Tommyknockers is wildly inconsistent and rambling, Under the Dome is measured and focused, even at an epic length.
Ultimately I thought Under the Dome was entertaining and competently written but comparatively unremarkable. Better than some of King’s older books, but not up to the standard set by his other recent work. I think part of the problem may have been the fact that much of what happens relies on the townspeople being gullible or outright stupid; Big Jim Rennie feels like such an obvious villain that it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone trusts him in the first place. I’m glad I read it, but I’m curious to see how the TV series reconfigures the same elements for a different medium.
The Human Division by John Scalzi, January 15th to April 9th, 2013 – The first two installments of John Scalzi’s episodic novel set in the Old Man’s War universe have already been released, but there are eleven more episodes to look forward to over the next few months. The first episode, The B Team, felt like the opening of a novel, but the second episode, Walk The Plank, was very different stylistically and focused on entirely different characters. I have a feeling that Scalzi plans on playing with our expectations over the course of the series, and I’m very curious to see what he does next.
Homeland by Cory Doctorow, February 5, 2013 – I have mixed feelings about Cory Doctorow. On one hand, I don’t always agree with his politics – or at least the extremity of his views – but I thoroughly enjoyed Little Brother when I read it a few years ago and I am definitely looking forward to this sequel. Much of Doctorow’s work seems closely tied to his personal politics, and Homeland is no different. Here he tackles a Wikileaks-style information dump that young hacker/activist Marcus has to decide how to disseminate, all while he is being chased by mysterious agents and trying to rescue a kidnapped friend.
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, Feb 26, 2013 – Whoever wrote the blurb for this book is an absolute genius. The book is described alternately as “a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner” and “a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means” among other things. The book sounds hilarious, weird, obsessed with sex and exactly the sort of thing I’d like to read despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it’s actually about. Those kinds of books either turn out to be my all-time favorites or complete wrecks that I abandon within fifty pages, but they’re always worth giving a shot.
You by Austin Grossman, March 26, 2013 – Austin Grossman – twin brother of Lev Grossman and author of Soon I Will Be Invincible – draws on his experiences working in the game industry to tell the story of a game designer who joins a legendary developer in an attempt to solve the mystery of his friend’s death. However, once he starts working on their upcoming game, he discovers a “mysterious software glitch” that leads him on a path towards discovering something bigger and far more dangerous. I haven’t read Grossman’s first book, but this one sounds like it’ll scratch the same itch as Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, April 2, 2013 – Kate Atkinson’s first novel in several years that doesn’t focus on detective Jackson Brodie also has an intriguing time-bending premise. Ursula Todd is first born in in 1910 only to die that same night. Except she also lives, only to die again and again throughout the course of her odd life. This one completely snuck up on me; I haven’t read all of her Jackson Brodie books, but I was starting to get the impression that she was planning on sticking with that series for the foreseeable future.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, April 30, 2013 – I still need to read Horns, but Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key were more than enough to convince me that Hill is a talent to watch. Here he tells the story of Victoria McQueen, the girl with “a secret gift for finding things”, and Charlie Manx, a very dangerous man in a Rolls-Royce that can travel between worlds. They cross paths one day and Victoria barely escapes with her life. The story picks up again years later when Charlie comes after Victoria’s son. The book sounds intense and ambitious, and I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, June 4th 2013 – First off, this book gets absolutely ecstatic reviews from everyone that reads it, so that’s definitely a vote in its favor. I read Beukes’ Moxyland a few years ago, and although I did enjoy it, it felt a bit like William Gibson-lite. Here it seems like she might have truly come into her own with a story about a time-travelling serial killer and the girl who survives to hunt him down. Also, it’s being published by Mulholland Books, who seem to have a lot of fascinating crime/sci-fi crossovers on their schedule this year.
Joyland by Stephen King, June 4th 2013 – Joyland is the first of two King books coming out in 2013. What makes this one interesting is that it’s the second book he’s published through Hard Case Crime (the first was The Colorado Kid), which implies that even if there are supernatural elements, the book will fall more on the pulp/thriller side of things. As you might guess from the title, the book focuses on a young man who works at an amusement park and discovers something sinister. King’s last few books have been epics, so it’s nice to see him stepping back and telling a story that isn’t quite so wide in scope.
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran, June 18th 2013 – I read the first Claire DeWitt book with my book club, and Gran immediately joined the short list of authors whose every work I want to read. City of the Dead focused on the detective’s return to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the mix of mysticism, surrealist detective manuals and local New Orleans flavor combined to make an incredibly compelling read. Here DeWitt travels to San Francisco to solve the murder of her musician ex-boyfriend. One of the things I loved most about City of the Dead was that New Orleans felt like a character, so the choice of San Francisco as a setting seems like a natural progression.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, June 18th 2013 – I don’t know what Gaiman’s next novel for adults is about, but I know I’ll be picking it up and reading it as soon as it comes out. It’s actually kind of pleasant not knowing the synopsis of such a big release, so I think I might do what I can to stay relatively unspoiled until June (if at all possible). I will admit that the last few things I’ve read by Gaiman haven’t grabbed me as much as Neverwhere or American Gods, but Coraline is one of the few books I’ve read that actually freaked me out, so I’ll forgive the occasional bit of uneven writing after that terrifying little book.
Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, July 2, 2013 – Far-future “mundane” space opera set in the same world as Saturn’s Children with a storyline that apparently involves interstellar finance. Stross is one of few authors I’ve read who manages to make wonky discussions of economics, technology and politics both exciting and palatable. I finished reading his Merchant Princes books last year, and although it was occasionally a bit of a bumpy ride, I was fascinated by all of the economical maneuvering Stross wove into the story.
Skinner by Charlie Huston, July 9th 2013 – Huston is another one of those authors whose books I will buy and read immediately upon release. I absolutely loved Caught Stealing, Sleepless and The Mysterious Art of Erasing All Signs of Death, so it’s hard to contain my excitement for Huston’s debut with Mulholland Books. The blurb describes it as “a combination of Le Carre spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy” and that just sounds like it’ll hit all the right buttons for me. Huston is a master of spare, intense crime thrillers that are alternately grim, gruesome and hilarious. Can not wait.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, September 24th 2013 – A sequel to The Shining that catches up with Danny Torrance as an adult working in a nursing home. One day he meets a young girl who has “the brightest shining ever seen” and she draws him into a battle both against his personal demons, including the legacy of his father’s alcoholism, and against a murderous tribe of paranormals called The True Knot. I never actually finished The Shining, but I’m still looking forward to this sequel. I plan on reading a lot of Stephen King this year, and have made a pile of King books next to my bed in preparation.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, September 24th 2013 – The synopses for Sanderson’s books don’t generally grab me, but that’s probably because I’m really not much of an epic fantasy reader. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the description of Steelheart, which tells the story of a world where people called “epics” were granted superpowers by a burst in the sky. Instead of being a force for good, epics used their powers to become despotic tyrants. The only people willing to fight against the epics are a group of normal humans called “reckoners”, who spend their time working on finding ways to assassinate the epics. I love the idea of normal human beings fighting against super-powered tyrants, so I’ll definitely be giving this one a chance.
I’ve recently been making a point of reading more short stories because I’m interested in trying my hand at writing some. As I’ve read more, I’ve discovered that there are certain genres that seem to excel in a shorter form. There’s a vaguely defined genre known as “slipstream” – sort of an odder cousin to magical realism, perhaps – that seems perfectly suited to short stories. To me, slipstream refers to stories that are just to the left of realism, ones with a slight surrealistic tilt, usually just enough to make you feel slightly uncomfortable.
Karen Russell seems to fit nicely into that category. I’d heard of her previously after reading some interesting blurbs about her first novel, Swamplandia! (exclamation point included), and both of her books have particularly eye-catching cover designs. I stopped at the library on my way home today to see if they had anything of hers on hand. They didn’t have the full collection, but I was able to find this story in a Best of 2007 collection edited by Stephen King.
At the start of the story, we discover that there are special schools for children born of werewolves. The condition skips a generation – alternating between wolfishness and humanity – and most werewolf parents feel it best that their more human children be taught the ways of humanity so that they can exist properly in both worlds. The story is narrated by a girl named Claudette as she experiences the different stages of becoming acclimated to human society.
The story works on several levels; when the girls are first brought to the school, they are given human names, much like missionaries gave “Christian” names to natives in Africa. A theme running throughout is what it really means to be “civilized” and how losing touch with nature changes someone. The youngest sister of the bunch never lets go of her animal nature, and she is shunned by the others for not conforming. The question of how to handle this ever-present reminder of their former wild nature is always at the front of the narrator’s mind.
On another level, the story works as a commentary on gender roles; there is a separate school for boys, and when the two groups are reintroduced to each other, they are told to speak in carefully prepared human dialogues. When one of the boys goes off script, Claudette snaps and lets her wolfish nature come through, and the boy is shocked and unable to respond. The girls are taught to control their emotions and behaviors very carefully, and the stress of that repression clearly wears thin.
Ultimately the story is a fascinating dissection of civilized society and the roles that are imposed on us as we grow up. The setting is evocative, the characters are nicely drawn, and it’s a brisk, easy read. I look forward to reading more stories by this author. Definitely recommended.